Bradley Cooper's powerful performance as Joseph Merrick, AKA 'The Elephant Man', transforms Bernard Pomerance's dry play into a romantically heartbreaking tale. Distorting his body and face, Cooper remains in an uncomfortably twisted contortion throughout the play; to perform with such prowess in such uncomfortable positions is truly commendable.
The play sees Merrick undergo deceit, trickery, mockery, cruelty, humiliation, adoration, rejection, and love, all the while suffering as the victim. However, outside of Merrick, the play in general does not have much to offer. The scenes without Merrick are disappointingly dry, but Merrick's character development, coupled with Cooper's excellent portrayal of the character is more than enough to carry the entirety of the play. Having Cooper play the character without cosmetic deformations to represent Merrick's condition, was a nice touch; seeing other characters mistreat Merrick is even more disturbing when we are constantly reminded visually that he is simply a human being.
Despite Merrick's mistreatment, his character evolves into a loveable and heartwarming hero for the audience. Merrick shows his strength during his mistreatment through survival. After the shocking scenes of abuse from the circus and the public, Merrick is taken in by Dr Frederick Teves, who monitors him at the London Hospital. Teves showcases Merrick as a medical marvel and other characters seem to warm to him by seeing Merrick's potential in sharing their own passions. Although these characters seem to be tainted with altruistic interests, it is interesting to see how the public's opinion of Merrick develops.
Ultimately, with help of Teves, Merrick finally finds a home in the London Hospital with people who have his best needs at heart, one of which is Patricia Clarkson's character, Mrs Kendal - a self-professed beauty queen and actress. Unfortunately, Clarkson's character is weak, unrealistic and at large, unlikeable. Her self-involved nature results in shallow humor and her nurturing relationship with Merrick is hard to buy. However, the audience can find real empathy for Teves whose sincere compassion for Merrick is heartwarming. The audience naturally sympathizes with his struggles with Merrick and as Merrick's character begins to display acute sharpness and creativity as a result of Teves' nurturing, the audience naturally warms to both characters.
Whilst Alessandro Nivola puts on a convincing performance of Teves, Cooper's portrayal of Merrick steals the show. His diligent attention to his character's physical condition whilst portraying diverse emotions ranging from shame to love to anger, is unparalleled. Even the occasional grunt whilst limping on and off stage seems completely natural and well timed. Indeed, prosthetics and cosmetics to show Merrick's deformations would have been overkill and would otherwise mask Cooper's superb acting.
The audience sympathizes immensely Merrick and the struggles he suffers throughout the play, making us really feel for the real-life Joseph Merrick, who is now remembered as an intelligent, creative and passionate man cursed by a very unfortunate condition.